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Preserving More than Bricks, Mortar

Billed as the first cultural resource park in Fairfax County, Park Authority officially opens Mount Air.

Brick chimneys from centuries old fireplaces may be the only remaining structures at Mount Air, but the earth around those chimneys has a story to tell.

On Friday, April 28, members of the Fairfax County Park Authority officially opened the county's first cultural resource park at Mount Air, which was built in 1732 by George Shirley Kernan and destroyed by fire in 1992.

"If you were here just a few years ago, the cellar hole was filled with debris and overgrown," said Cindy Messinger, director of the resource management division of the Park Authority. She pointed to the chimneys behind her, now cleared out and restored, surrounded by a manicured lawn of dark green grass.

The transformation, orchestrated between the Park Authority and the Board of Supervisors, led to the creation of the county's first cultural resource park, one which will not have Park Authority staff on hand at all times. Visitors will learn about the history of the property by reading interpretive signs located around the perimeter of the house, which include a timeline of the property's owners, an overview of some of the artifacts found in the rubble of the house after the fire and photographs of the interior of the home taken in the 1970s.

"This house was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War and members of the Army Corps of Engineer stayed here while Fort Belvior was being built," said Board of Supervisors Chair Gerry Connolly (D-At-Large).

The house was included on the county's list of historic properties in 1969 and turned over to the county for preservation in 1992, after the death of Elisabeth Enochs, Mount Air's last owner.

"The Park Authority is known for trails and RECenters, but an integral part of its mission is historic preservation," Connolly said of the site. He credited Jack and Catherine Thorsen, who live near the property, for their dedication to seeing the remains of the home preserved.

AFTER THE HOUSE burned down in 1992, the Park Authority was faced with the decision to preserve the house in ruins or try to clear the site and create a learning environment, said Michael Rierson, manager of the resource stewardship branch of the Park Authority.

Once the debris from the fire was cleared away and archeologists from the Park Authority set to work, pieces of china, pottery, wooden tools and buttons were found in the earth around the house, Rierson said. Cataloging and saving the artifacts have led to an additional treasure trove of facts and insight into the history of Fairfax County, adding to the list of homesteads like Mount Vernon, Sully and Woodlawn that provide a glimpse into the past through the everyday tools left behind.

"In each successive period of occupation, each area has distinct elements," Rierson said. "We can tell a lot about the lives of the people who lived here by what we find. Unfortunately, because of the fire, we lost a lot of the artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries, like doors and mantels. We were able to find some of the metal pieces, like hinges or door knobs."

Luckily, plenty of pictures from when the house was inhabited during the 1960s and 1970s remain that show what the house looked like with the old furniture in place, which provides for a more complete vision of what life was like inside Mount Air, Rierson said.

While it took hundreds of hours by volunteers to restore the Mount Air site, it was the work of Jack and Catherine Thorsen that led to the creation of the park, said Gil McCutcheon, Mount Vernon representative on the Park Authority Board.

Catherine Thorsen quickly reminded the more than 30 people gathered at the ceremony that it took more than just two people to restore the property.

"Holly Forbes lived on the other side of Telegraph Road and knew the last owner of the house. She was a true, dear friend of Mrs. Enoch," Thorsen said. "She knew Mrs. Enoch's mother, Shirley Kernan. Some day, Holly will be here and hopefully you can all hear the tales Holly can tell," she said.

Her devotion to the site has earned her the nickname, "Lady Catherine of Mount Air," McCutcheon said.

Neighbors David and Christine Sopko remembered seeing the house burning in 1992, arriving at Mount Air just after the fire engines.

"This place looked much different then," David Sopko said. "The road wound around the back behind the trees and none of these [townhouses] were there."

Christine Sopko said she loved visiting the site, learning about the history of the family that owned and occupied the house for over 200 years.

As a gardener, she said she'd like to volunteer to work with the Park Authority to get rid of the weeks that are choking out some of the native foliage.

"When you come up here and no one's around, it's so peaceful," she said.